You Say Tomato (3)

orange umbrella against blue sky with white puffy clouds

I say the sky, the orange umbrella, deep autumn blue, bluest back as far as I can remember, the scalloped edges of the umbrella a work of art, a silkscreen printed across the clouds.

You say oh. No. It has been this blue all week. It began Monday. You must not have noticed. Today is Saturday. Six days in a row now of this striking blue, like the sky in postcards, Switzerland sky. Where have you been?

I say I have been right here, lying on my back every day but Thursday, doing my yoga, looking up at the sky. Today is different, deeper, more vivid. Yes, I say, it’s been beautiful all week. But today the sky, the umbrella, they are like the Mediterranean. Today they speak Greek.

You say oh. Yes. Maybe I forgot who I was talking to. It is impossible for you to be wrong, even in this.

I say yes. Maybe you forgot. Maybe you forgot who the artist is, who the lover of light, of color, of texture. You forgot why I might have seen this, why I might have noticed this difference, and you did not.

[Editor’s note: Although the umbrella and the deep blue sky are real, this was a spontaneous writing I did in my Meetup group based on a prompt from Two Sylvias Press for April’s poetry month. It feels like a real conversation to me, but it is an imaginary one.]

Forgive this Flurry? (48)

I am inclined to ask for your forgiveness in advance for this flurry of posts as I work toward 56 posts while I’m still 56. I have a handful of days left, and two handfuls of posts remaining. But even as I want to apologize for flooding your email with new posts, a different voice tells me its okay. I think maybe even if you don’t have time to read them, you won’t mind seeing them in your inbox. Does that mean I don’t need to assure you that once I’m 57 things will slow down again? But I do want to keep them coming, one each week, five weeks with two posts. Every year I wonder how long I might keep this up. If I am still doing this when I’m 88, then 36 weeks of the year will need to have two posts. When I started I was 52, so it was the perfect fit. I don’t aspire to being 104 and still blogging, but you never know. I let go of this blog so completely last summer, I wasn’t sure I’d ever reach 56 posts. But I didn’t like giving up on it, so here I am. Tonight I am sick but still typing. I am debating what to name next year’s blog. I’m pretty sure the 57 will rhyme with heaven. What photo will I choose? A shot of clouds on our mountains might work, but I don’t have a good one. I have to make that always wrenching decision, too, about whether or not to pick a theme this year or leave things open again. But tonight I just need to finish this one post and trust the rest will unfold as it may. And tonight, too, I feel glad for you, my readers, and for knowing you will not only forgive me for this flurry of posts—you may even embrace them. So, thank you for that. I can’t tell you how good it feels to think that may be true.

Lake Chapala Nibbles on Its Edges (48)

When I lived in Ajijic, the lake flooded. It wasn’t the worst the village had lived through. People told me years before Lake Chapala came two blocks into town. The year I was there, she only swallowed the shoreline. But I remember the eery feeling I had seeing everything submerged. I used to be able to walk straight down Aldama from my hillside home, then walk along a dirt path that hugged the southern edge of the village beside the lake. All of that was submerged, even the cobblestones of my street disappearing into the water. I stood there for a long time listening to the lapping of the small waves, felt my mind twisting with the reality before it. I walked across town, approached the lake from the west.

basketball court submerged in the lake

egrets on the tennis court fence

flooding_don't bother the birds sign

I marveled at the way the basketball courts had vanished, the hoops sitting out in the water. The lake edged the tennis courts at the fence line as if by design. I watched the egrets sitting on the chain link, their unexpected furniture. The little sign asking people not to bother the birds was still visible, the tree it was posted beside surrounded by lake. Two people passed me on horseback, the horses legs churning up the mud. I cringed at what their hooves might find, hoped they wouldn’t be injured. It all made me glad I lived on the hillside, as often as I might have looked at homes nearer the lake with a certain longing. On the hillside, the thunder gods sat on our red tile roofs and laughed. But when the rains came, the rivers of our streets ran away from us. I stood watching the horses heading east where I couldn’t follow. I choose thunder, I thought.

Culture Shock (15)

The cats and I crossed the border from Sonoyta, Mexico, three years ago on the second of July. I sang “California Here [We] Come” most of the way through Arizona. Near the California border, we were perched on a ridge on the highway with lightning breaking beside us, my fingers white where they gripped the wheel, the thunder drowning out the beat of my heart. But it cooled the air, welcome relief from the July heat, the desert washed clean around us, alive in scents and color. We bogged down just west of Blythe, an accident on the interstate, and I dipped a washcloth into a bucket of ice water, squeezing it out again and again on the heads of my two cats. I remember running ice cubes over my own forehead, across the back of my neck, along the curve of my collar bone. I decided I was being groomed in some fashion, learning a new kind of endurance on that journey. I would feel that again in the weeks that followed our new lives in the Coachella Valley, coming to terms with the lethal summers, knowing the heat could kill me.

Close-up of Mexican birds of paradise_orange blooms and buds

I took comfort in the bright orange blooms of the Mexican birds of paradise that laced my new home. I thought it was a happy omen. I remember sitting that first evening on the lawn of the motel across the street from the apartment I’d rented over the internet, using their wireless to send emails to Mexico, letting people know we’d arrived, safe, sound, staggered by the feat. I remember walking in the days that followed, feeling like I’d landed on another planet with the wide, clean streets, the expensive landscaping, the manicured everything. After the narrow cobblestone streets of Ajijic that had been my world, being here couldn’t have felt more foreign. I remember feeling like an alien, desperate to connect with the Mexicans who crossed my path, the woman in the mall restroom, the tailor near my new home, the bartender at the Mexican restaurant who told me the owner there was from Guadalajara. I was stripped of the need to speak Spanish, but I didn’t want to stop. It felt wrong. And everywhere I looked, I saw signs of wealth, and you could walk for miles without being able to buy a bottle of water in the brutal heat.

I wanted a tiendita on every block, even in the residential neighborhoods. I wanted brown skin, black hair, warm, laughing bodies greeting each other in the streets, greeting me. I craved the rich, textured, vivid world I’d left behind. I felt small and unveiled, vulnerable, alone. I missed Ana and Rodolfo so much it hurt, an ache that didn’t go away. I didn’t want to be here. I only wanted to be there, in that other world that already seemed like a dream, all those hundreds of miles away, where I’d left all the food that had flavor, all the color that had depth, all the people who met me with an open heart, warm brown eyes meeting mine. I wanted fruta picada on every corner, tortillas delivered every morning, still warm, the sound of the tamale man calling in the early night. I wanted the life that had become mine. I wanted to go home.

The Trouble with Attachments (14)

Three years ago on the first of July I was driving west across northern Mexico in the late afternoon. I planned to spend my last night in the country near the little border town of Sonoyta. I wanted to cross into Arizona early the next morning. The weather had been kind to us, clouds hugging our toll road for the past three days, but it was still hot. Undeveloped desert stretched in all directions. The night before, we stayed at a wonderful motel, but I can’t remember where it was. I only remember there were big trees and grassy areas, wild ferns, lush growth in contrast to the sparse desert. I walked to see the nearby river from the overpass, and on my way back to my room a big truck drove past me. It was filled with pigs. They were screaming, as though they knew where they were going. I’ll never forget the sound or the feeling of helpless terror it conveyed. I remembered reading (in a romance novel!) that pigs are almost as intelligent as dolphins. Now when I miss bacon I remember their screams.

Desert and mountains copyright Tommy Huynh

Later, I ate dinner on the patio. I lingered through the late afternoon and evening by the pool. It was safe and soothing, my oasis in a stressful journey from Jalisco with my two cats. But as is my wont, I decided I would try to repeat this luxury the following night. This is where I went astray. In the afternoon when I was about an hour or so from the border, I saw a motel in the middle of nowhere, sitting alone on the right-hand side of the highway. It was new, and the man in the office was warm and kind. But I had it in my head I wanted a pool. He told me about a motel with a pool in the next town (whose name also escapes me now, and no staring at my worn and folded map evokes an answer), so I thanked him and drove on. I found the motel and checked in. And little by little I discovered this was where the army stayed. There was a pool, all right, but it was crowded with young army men on their off shifts. I was damn well going to swim anyway, and swim I did, weaving in and out of the boisterous young men. I chatted with one, treading water in the deep end, and that’s when I got the skinny on the place. It turned out they came and went all night long.

It wasn’t only the incredible, constant noise that marred my night. It was the energy of the military outside my door and the sight of all those young men carrying machine guns, that even after almost two years in Mexico I never learned to see without a little skip in my heart. To this day I am convinced my last night on the other side of the border would have been filled with big sweetness if I’d only stayed at the place that caught my eye, not had my heart set on a pool at all costs, been content with my previous night’s oasis without being greedy and trying to grab after more. But there was sweetness in the early morning hours there. I couldn’t get Sable out from under the bed when I was ready to leave, and one of the army guys who was out by the pool offered to help me. I couldn’t have done it alone, and I owe him a debt and my big gratitude. Maybe he was the reason I was there.

[Editor’s note: This photo is by Tommy Huynh. He holds the copyright, and you can find it on his website: Used here with his permission. And on another note, I got a chuckle out of my title here. I wondered if people would think I was going to talk about problems with attached files! ;-) ]

Alpiste (13)

“The pine tree is coming down in two weeks,” my landlord yelled at me. He was angry with me at the time. I’m hoping he didn’t really mean it, doesn’t follow through with his threat. Our pine tree has been through so much. She should never have been planted in this desert to begin with. Fierce wind took more than half of her away before I came. She was haggard, drying, teetering, it seemed, brushing close to death. But she rallied, and now the shade she casts is doubled, maybe tripled. And the spots for birds to perch or shelter have multiplied, as well. I pray she’ll be protected, pray she’ll thrive. I would hate to see her taken, a mean recompense for having grabbed onto life with such grit, such gusto. I’d be afraid, too, losing her would mean losing even more of the birds who like to linger in our little corner of the world.

Already there are fewer birds here than before. The bulk of the house sparrows have disappeared again, and the doves don’t fill the tray feeder in the mornings like they used to, all packed together, a picture I never did capture properly, all those pretty bird butts ringing the wooden frame. When I first began to notice their absence, in my usual fashion, I wondered if it was because of me. Had I been found wanting? Later, I considered other possibilities, but my first thought was I had not been enough in some way. Could it be the desert rats, cute little guys with big dark chocolate eyes, who eat the remaining seeds in the night? Do they eat bird eggs? Attack birds? I don’t know. I worry, too, it is because I switched to the cheaper bird seed. My new attempts at being frugal and the fact I can bring the twenty-pound bag home from True Value on the back of my bike has me using the dull, dusty feed with cracked corn and milo.

In Hopland I bought a hundred pounds or more at a time and blended them myself. It was cheaper that way, but it was a big procedure, up to my armpits in the plastic bags to mix them. But I loved the way the seeds moved through my fingers, rich with oils and colors. In Ajijic, I could walk to the next block over and buy my bird seed from my favorite tiendita there. They would scoop up the alpiste and weigh it in a plastic bolsa. I could get just half a kilo at a time, stroll home with it, so easy. I miss that. I always suspected folks were cooking with it, too, but I never asked. I know it can be used to make atole, a common hot drink, a comfort. But I trust many of my neighbors were feeding it to their birds, as well. On my block and the next, I would hear the exotic birds calling from the entryways of homes as I walked by. I didn’t know alpiste was canary seed until I moved back to the United States and went hunting it down for my bird seed blend.

view of Lake Chapala from my veranda

View of lake from veranda after sunset

I had sparrows in Ajijic, too, though never more than three or four at a time, and one dear hummingbird with a feather out of place. (He was the hardest to say goodbye to, after Ana and Rodolfo. I cried when I took his feeder down and left him with a paper cup of sugar water. He sat on the wire and watched me for a long time.) There were no trees on my block there, no real shelter, but still the sparrows would materialize at the tray feeder, eat the alpiste, chat among themselves. I’d sit on my veranda looking at the lake and listening to their quiet exchange.

Now in my courtyard I think again about buying a more expensive seed blend. Maybe I’ll offer it as a special treat from time to time. Or maybe I’ll begin winning more writing contests, left and right and left again, and I won’t even blink at the idea of returning to the rich, pretty birdseed my birds here became accustomed to. I hear the house sparrows behind me now, soft, muted, rounded sounds, satisfied from a midday snack, enjoying the shade of the pyracanthas and the cooling mist the dry, hot wind wafts their way in small puffs.

The sun reaches my feet, burns my right arm and hip as I write, but I keep going, leaning, crooked, toward my remaining shade. I remember the quiet chatter from my sparrows in Ajijic. I relish them in memory even as I savor the soft murmurs behind me now in the hedge. And even though the heat is still climbing, and even though I have much to do still as the day unfolds, I stop, linger, feeling oh so lucky, loving our little desert courtyard, this small oasis on a hot, busy day.

Dead Ones (12)

I have a history of dead ones, a habit of coming upon them. There was a span of time when I lived in L.A. where I would find dead animals while I was driving. I would stop to move them to the side of the road. It must have happened twenty times in as many months. I don’t like that we kill them and drive on, leaving their dead bodies to get hit again and again, turned to mangled meat on the asphalt. I’ve cried over dead deer, over the bird I hit who screamed when he died, over the cat who leaped into the path of my car one night in the rain. When I lived in Sebastopol I found a grey squirrel dead on the edge of the road where it bends. I studied it for a long time, marveling at the way the morning mist clung to its plumed tail, iridescent, feather-like. The next day I looked for the squirrel’s body and found a pellet instead. Finding it felt like a gift, being able to know the little one had provided a meal for a bird of prey. I have three squirrel bones, scoured almost white in the bird’s gullet, tucked away in a matchbox, sacred treasure.

The pellet may have been left by a turkey vulture. We had a lot of them there. But I secretly hoped it was from one of my favorite red-shouldered hawks, though I don’t even know if they eat carrion. There was a mated pair who lived on my hill, who would allow me to stand beneath their perch when I saw them, who would tolerate me speaking to them without flying away. One day I found one of them dead beside the road at the bottom of the hill. It was the female, I think, so big and beautiful, gone now. I brought stones to her, my big quartz crystal, a chunk of amethyst, my offerings for her lying in. I am convinced one of my neighbor’s took her body for the feathers. She took my stones, too. It was hard to forgive myself for telling her the bird had died, letting her know where her body was. Later, I saw the male hawk teaching their offspring to fly, one larger bird and one tiny one, only dark specks against the white sky, across the valley from my home. But their calls were unmistakable. I broke open with grief for their loss, with joy at knowing the male was not alone, touched and humbled by their bravery, going on without her. The memory of the two of them flying together, widower father, orphaned son, still makes me want to cry.

I came upon another of my memorable dead in Todos Santos. I found her on my walk just south of the village. I loved that road through the desert, nothing but the sun and the crunch of the sandy soil beneath my sandals as I walked, and then the sound of the sea in the distance. But just outside of town you had to pass a dumpsite. It looked to me as though the garbage washed in with the floods, branches and plant debris mixed up with the trash. But then people would add to it, and the flies would come. I would hold my breath until I’d passed, trying not to look and yet looking anyway, some weird impulse like passing a car accident and slowing down, craning to see. Sometimes there were dead animals there, but more often rotting vegetables, moldy egg shells, dirty diapers, empty bottles of transmission fluid. The dead one who stayed with me didn’t draw any flies. She’d been dead a long time, I think. The desert sun had done its work, bleached her of her smells. She was in the middle of the dirt road, and I remember how shocked I was when I first made sense of her, understood what I was looking at. She was a small mountain lion. She must have been run over, again and again, and she dried that way, flattened like a pancake in the dry desert heat. The image is burned in my brain. It was like a cartoon rendering, the animal squashed flat by a bulldozer, then peeling itself up off the ground, but it was real fur, real cat feet, cat tail. Her form became familiar to me, and I would look for her each time I walked there. I loved that cat.

Last Monday I rode my bike to the community garden. I had my camera in the basket. I wanted to take pictures of all my sprouting seeds, document their lifespan. I was riding on Palo Fierro, and I passed something lying on the sidewalk. I had to stop, walk back to look, praying it wasn’t a dead animal. It was lying in the exact center of the sidewalk, parallel with the edges, in perfect alignment, as if someone had placed it there with care. (It didn’t occur to me until just now. Did someone stop, like me, move it from the road?) My first glimpse had me thinking cottontail because of the colors, beige and white, but the shape wasn’t right.

barn owl wing feathers with lantana (flowers)

When I see who it is, it takes my breath. It’s a barn owl. It must have been hit by a car. I don’t check his underside, only pick him up as gently as I can, carry him to a grassy spot beneath a flowering bush. I pick a few of the bright orange lantana, tuck them by his curved beak, his ruffled wing feathers, his feet. I touch his talons once with my forefinger–they are too amazing to resist. They speak of his wildness, his fierce strength. I can’t help but wonder. Is he the owl I saw flying in the night by the grove of fan palms? Is he my first owl, dead now? We are only a block away from where I saw him.

barn owl talons, lantana tucked up against them

I get my camera from the bike, take pictures of this dead one. I wonder if a bird will come to eat him. I pray for his soul, even though I know it is being well tended. I cry a little. He is so otherworldly to me, the screech in the night, the hallowed, silent white-winged soaring, his feathered shape so still now, ghostly, extraordinary even in death. I stroke him once and straighten. There is a smudge across the day. We’ve lost a piece of light.